I’m assuming that if you’re reading this blog and you’ve been drawn to my work and teaching, that on some level, you’re interested in being more successful with your music. It’s a pretty normal drive. You’re inspired to make music and so you naturally look for ways to become more successful at getting your music into the world and ideally, make money from it. Most musicians I work with want to be more “successful”. I don’t know that many musicians that are actively trying to be less successful. We all want success. But why? What really motivates us to pursue success as musicians? Is it because we want to make money? Surely there are easier ways to make money. Is it because we feel like music is our calling and we imagine we’d be happier if we could support ourselves doing what we love? Is it because we desire the status and respect of our peers we imagine being a successful musician would bring? I think, if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us want to be more successful, because we think that on some level it will bring us more happiness.
Success equals happiness, seems to be the equation that most of our culture buys into. You don’t have to look very hard to see that this is the premise most of our culture adheres to and operates from. So many of us, spend so much of our time, frantically trying to become more successful at our various pursuits. But why? Does being successful result in more happiness? What if you achieved the success you so desperately longed for but then realized you weren’t really any more or less happy than before? Are all “successful” people happy? Are all “unsuccessful” people unhappy? If becoming successful was a formula for happiness, why does there seem to be so many screwed up “successful” celebrities and musicians with chaotic personal lives?
Think about a time when you worked really hard to get something you desired and you achieved your goal. How long did you feel happier as a result? If you’re like me, you probably experienced a short term spike in your happiness that fairly quickly subsided to your “normal” level of happiness. I remember the first time I heard my music on television. I was ecstatic, for about a day. The next day I was a little less ecstatic, the next day a little less and so on, until a couple weeks later it was almost as if the experience never even happened. Then each successive time I heard my music on television, I was a little less excited than the previous time. These days, if I catch one of my placements on TV, I perk up a little bit and then just get back to whatever business is at hand. Whatever happiness you get from achieving success is usually short lived.
Maybe, as a culture, we’ve had it backwards all along. Growing research into this field suggests that becoming successful is more a byproduct of being happy, than the other way around. It’s a subtle but profound distinction. A review of 225 studies in the Psychological Bulletin found that happiness doesn’t necessarily follow success. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Happiness leads to success. Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., of the University of California, Riverside and her colleagues reviewed three different types of studies: those that compare different groups of people, those that follow individuals over long periods of time and those that examine outcomes in controlled settings.
These studies examined questions such as “Are happy people more successful than unhappy people? Does happiness precede success? And does positive affect lead to success-oriented behaviors?” The results from all of the studies suggest that happiness leads to greater successes in life. Lyubomirsky suggests “this may be because happy people frequently experience positive moods and these positive moods prompt them to be more likely to work actively toward new goals and build new resources. When people feel happy, they tend to feel confident, optimistic, and energetic and others find them likable and sociable.”
When we’re happy, we tend to be more motivated to pursue the things that bring us more happiness, and we increase our odds of becoming successful at doing those things. Think about it, when are you the most productive and effective? When you’re happy and in a good mood, or when you’re despondent and discourage about your place in life. For me it’s definitely the former. I tend to do everything better when I’m in a good mood. Sure, some discontentment can be motivating and lead to actions that bring more “success”. But pursuing success in this manner tends to create a cycle of dissatisfaction that never gets resolved. You’re constantly chasing something that you think will bring satisfaction that never quite does. Psychologists refer to this state as the “hedonistic treadmill”. We go around and around, never quite feeling satisfied. Yet, when you focus on being happy and pursuing things that you’re interested in from that place, you can simply enjoy the journey, wherever it takes you.
It’s important as musicians that we closely examine what motivates us.
Musicians, perhaps more than people in any other profession, tend to be pursuing a very elusive goal; the dream of “making it big”. This goal isn’t inherently good or bad. It all depends on what your motivation is. Are you trying to “make it big” because you imagine you’ll be incredibly happy when all your dreams come true? Or are you pursuing your goals because you’re so happy and passionate about music and your goals that you simply can’t help going after what you want and love?
You have the rest of your life to chase success, but you can choose to be happy right now.
The blog of musician and thinker of deep thoughts, Aaron Davison.